The Montessori Method of Early Education
BY MANIDIPA MANDAL
The word ‘Montessori’ is so frequently used in the Indian early learning that it has almost become a generic term like Xerox—we often hear of ‘montessori school’ to describe quite a traditional nursery setup; it even turns up in matrimonials(!). So it can be confusing for parents with young families to determine what exactly they are looking for when anyone mentions Montessori education.
What exactly is the Montessori Method?
Developed by Italian doctor (the country’s first woman physician, in fact), polymath and educator Maria Montessori, this child-centric approach to learning is based on the assumption that all children are naturally inclined to learn—all they need is exposure to the right environment and tools to support their desire to construct themselves into adults.
Some key aspects of the Montessori Method:
- Supports all-round development—emotional, social and moral/ethical—and not just academic goals (though those are included too).
- Creates opportunities for positive social interactions.
- Helps with executive planning and control, using child-sized versions of real-life objects such as cutlery and crockery.
- Provides concrete, hands-on, sensory experiences with a specific list of materials (the correct Montessori terminology) typically made of wood in regular geometric shapes, presented in a specific sequence, to be used in appropriate ways (no ‘creative use’ of cylindrical peg blocks as soldiers, say).
- Encourages independent exploration, problem solving and creative reasoning, with freedom within limits and emphasizing process over end product, so that children spot their own errors through feedback from the materials themselves and experience success for themselves.
- Places children in multi-age groups, traditionally with a three-year span, as a community of learners (this is an objective often missing in actual Indian Montessori schools) with attachment to the same facilitator over a longer time.
- Fosters intrinsic motivation, responsibility and self-reliance.
- Nurtures cooperation and collaboration with turn taking, though child may have the option to work alone or collaborate/help each other.
- Promotes courtesy and peaceful conflict resolution with peers.
- Emphasizes care of self, environment and materials.
- Offers opportunities to practice life skills such as cooking, carpentry and sewing from quite an young age.
- Seeks to inculcate self-discipline through meeting of needs, rather than reward and punishment.
- Avoids appealing to the conventionally ‘childish’—bright colours, fantasy elements, etc—and instead offers supported access to the real world.
- Takes advantage of the naturally longer attention span children have when working within the context of their interests.
The expectation is for the teacher/parent to be a guide/facilitator and not instructor, taking responsibility for keep materials prepared and arranged for easy access, adapting the environment in response to each child’s specific needs and the stage they are at. Children have the freedom to choose their material according to their interest and objectives to explore on their own, promoting decision-making abilities.
Can I use Montessori materials in my home environment?
An important aspect of the Montessori method that is oft-ignored is that it is not just a preschool system; it is an attitude that can begin even at babyhood, in your at-home parenting, and also extends beyond playschool and preschool to grade-school and higher education per Dr Montessori herself, though it is not much seen in Indian educational institutions.
A key tenet of the Montessori method is that children play precisely because that is how they learn. In fact, if you consider matters carefully, many conventional toys already take advantage of certain Montessori guidelines: a peg puzzle or jigsaw is a self-correcting puzzle, usually, and can be worked on individually or in collaboration, yes? So is the more advanced Rubik’s cube. Also, a Montessori toy does not try to teach alphabet and animal sounds at the same time; it focuses on exploring one concept at a time. Even a simple rattle fits the bill—you shake it and it makes a sound—provided your baby can actually see the bells or clattering pieces that are the source of the sound.
However, not all toys are designed to support learning. Some use materials that are unnatural—plastics, for instance, especially for items that are not made in plastic for adults’ use (jugs, pots and pans, knives). In other cases, while the material is not realistic, the toy can still support the Montessori attitude of self-correction and exploration—consider the mixed box of Lego bricks, which do not have an instruction manual. You also want to avoid an excess of noise and colour, because those make it harder for the child to abstract the essential information; the simpler, the better. Similarly, avoid toys that have obscure cause and effect—a xylophone or guitar is apt, but a digital piano app with a touchscreen, not so much.
To make choosing easier for you, at The Nestery, we have already made readily available, a curated list of Montessori toys.
- For a baby, consider the simple teethers, grasping beads and rattles from Ariro, Thasvi, Shumee and Maya Organics, or a black-and-white mobile (because babies initially see in monochrome).
- For a toddler or older infant, introduce the exploration of 3D shapes, motor manipulation and sensory feedback through stackers, sorters, simple puzzles and wobblers (we love this one from Kinderpass). Add play scarves and very short lengths of ribbons and textiles. Once they are teething, a beaded string is good fun to manipulate as well as munch, as are geometric 3D shapes in silicone!
- As your child grows to playschool age, introduce sensory blocks, from the Sensory Play Co., which let the child add colour mixing and reflection to stacking skills, as well as pegboards, object permanence block, ball runs and a climbing frame from ALT Retail. Include sorting and threading activities so your child gets practice in visuo-spatial and organizational skills, and eye-hand coordination too—these are what lead to better cutting skills, handwriting, etc. Give them small but heavy-ish jugs and tumblers to practice pouring with: start with dry grains and beans, and then progress to liquids.
- For preschool and early gradeschool children, add in DIY pencil pouches and bags (ours are from Toyroom) and dolls, versatile wooden blocks that can be used for not just construction but mathematical manipulations and art, or even their own table and chair to build (ours is from Shumee). If you child is musically inclined, add drums, xylophones and metallophones, bells and shakers. Don't assume traditional Indian toys can't fit the Montessori method either: Try an old-fashioned ball-and-cup toy, such as our selection from Maya Organics, or the classic spindle top or flip top.
- As the child grows in skill and confidence, add more advanced handicrafts: carpentry kits such as this one and this one and sewing kits, block printing and soap making, book binding, tie & dye, paper making and papier mache. Also incorporate the three Rs with sets from Skola—sandpaper letters, counting from HABA and Skola and geometric materials, and more.
Choose toys that are ‘work’ that is fun, not mere entertainment, and opt for natural materials, as simple as possible.
How do I set up a Montessori environment with these materials?
Adapting your household to support the Montessori method does not imply simply setting up a schoolroom with low shelves stacked with materials in baskets and bins—though that is certainly a part of it.
Your main goal, however, is creating a safe environment that supports the child’s independent, sequential exploration. This means:
- For a baby or toddler, put their bed on the floor, just like a play mat, so they can get up and explore on their own (of course, for safety, you can isolate spaces with a baby gate or play yard railings).
- Add mirrors at child level, even floor level for an infant. Make them safe mirrors, not glass but plastic tiles.
- Instead of miniaturising setups like a kitchen set for your child, allow them to come into the kitchen at a safe distance from the fire and have stepstools available for them to reach the countertop (same for the bathroom and higher bookshelves).
- If a toy/activity/material/book is not yet appropriate for your child, put it out of reach and ideally out of sight. Avoid visual overwhelm—allow access to only what is developmentally apt for your child (not just what lists say they should be doing).
- If you are trying to extend practice/engagement with activities and concepts, scaffold it with their interests.
- Choose realistic soft toys; not a teddy bear with a bow or an unicorn.
- Choose books that are based in realism, not fantasy—tigers in the jungle rather than pigeons driving buses—for your child to discover themselves as well as when you read to them. Keep the fantastic narratives like fairy tales for when they are at least 7 or so, able to reliably distinguish fantasy and reality.
- Favour natural materials, preferably with heft: fabrics, clay, wood, metal, found objects such as stones and leaves and twigs. Weight is a sensory feedback, and helps strengthen the body as well as advance motor skills.
- Rotate toys so that only a small set is available at once. This allows the child to focus without distraction. The actual number will depend on the child’s personality as well as their developmental stage—when you see your child flit from one to the other object rapidly, you likely either have too many toys or they are not aligned to the child’s interest.
- Avoid redirecting your child to new activities when they are engrossed in a task/object; minimize interruptions. Ideally, Montessori suggested making room in your child’s schedule for at least three uninterrupted hours of play-work of their choosing. Which is to say, respect your child’s play as ‘work’ they are doing; you wouldn’t interrupt a ‘busy’ adult at work to tell them to clean up their desk, right?
- As a corollary, be patient while your child seems to endlessly repeat (or ask you to read) the same thing, again and again and again; when they are older, we will call this same skill ‘practice’ and insist on it! Let them repeat unto mastery now, and you may not need to insist later.
- Stop telling them to sit still, except when it is a safety hazard (ie, while eating). Leave them free to take movement breaks as needed during activities.
- Do the same thing the same way—the ‘right way’—each time. Teach your child how to roll up a rug, carry a set of materials or a glass safely by modeling until it is automatic, use the same word for the same object each time.
- Keep your home organized and clutter-free, and of course, child-proof. Guide your child to help tidy each day, after activities.
- Choose more of neutral colours; the work (or call it play) is the focus, and not the workspace.
- Have lots of flat workspaces, including the floor—tables and chairs can wait till they are older.
- When hanging artwork or décor, kneel or lie on the floor before you decide. You want them at the right perspective for the child, not adults who are essentially visitors in their space; the same applies to hooks and hangers and low shelves for clothes, shoes, umbrella, raincoat, materials…
- Not just the child’s room, make room for your child’s things in every room. By the door, a child-sized stool. In the living room, space for books and toys and crafts. Same with bathroom, kitchen, dining space… every space in your house the child is allowed in (minimize the can’t-enter spaces).
- Engage children in chores. Give them appropriately sized tools that functional as well as your own—mops, brooms, watering cans, mortar and pestle, rolling pin, peeler, corer, and yes, even safe knives as they mature.
- Let them eat out of real crockery, or at least steel or wooden tableware. Yes, there will be initial spills and a few breakages, but they will adapt faster.
- Let them dress themselves from toddlerhood, and choose their clothing. Choose clothing they can do up themselves—velcro and pull-on rather than hooks at the back, buttons in front that are large enough, toddler-friendly zipper pulls…
- Want your child to read sooner? Add an easel to their room and read to them—lots! Bring in a sand tray (or fill a regular tray with semolina) rather than pressing a pencil into their tiny paw before they are ready. Remember, developmentally appropriate learning is not age-led, but child-led.
- Avoid baby talk and speak normally. Don’t be afraid of ‘big words’.
- When helping your child, do as much as needed to avoid frustration but do the minimum only: imagine your child saying, “Help me do this myself.”
- Respect your child and speak to them as you would to a colleague or partner. Use polite words, always, and let them know what you are doing when you pick them up and move them, etc. No shoving food in mouth, no forcing toothbrush in without explanations. This is a small person, complete with thoughts and feelings, not a toy!
Will Montessori work for every child?
Did you know Dr Maria Montessori developed her very first materials for children with children at the time diagnosed as ‘mentally disabled’?
Today we would term these kids as being autistic, or as exhibiting developmental disorders, or as having learning disabilities. Studies have actually shown that even neuro-typical children with an early education faithfully following the Montessori method perform better than peers in traditional classrooms on reading and writing tasks as well as showing advanced social skills.
Indeed, the basic science behind Dr Montessori’s work—that children are borne eager to learn and grow, and that their explorations are the means of that growth—has been borne out in diverse areas of child development. For instance, the work of feeding therapist Ellyn Satter, the leading light of helping children with difficulties eating in the typical fashion, whose work has pretty much laid the groundwork for all modern pediatric practice on children’s eating, said the same thing about not just typical children but even those with diagnosed eating disorders or sensory sensitivities: They all push themselves along to greater skills and acceptance, as long as there is secure, safe, consistent exposure without added pressure from adults—and that includes pressures not only to perform or obey, but also pressures such as distraction and denial of objects of interest or habit, withholding of comfort.
Manidipa Mandal is a seven-year-old parent still learning about parenting. She also likes to read and write about ecology, biology (especially gender), food and travel.